Ids the ballad still valid?
Even in the half-light of the Palace Bar at the Horton Grand Hotel in San Diego's muted Gaslamp District, I can see nothing but mock seriousness in Charles McPherson's movie-star face as he puts the question to a hushed Friday-night crowd.
This is a room the Charles McPherson Quartet works twice a year. They did it this year in January, and again in August. And, hey, they're holding this crowd in the palms of their professional hands quite as though we were baby chicks, barely hatched from our shells. Radiance probably isn't the word for what McPherson emits, but in a pinch it will do.
With more than 35 recorded years behind him, Charles McPherson — suave, mustachioed, resplendent in a suit the lavender of a San Diego twilight — remains, at 55, a youthful master of those world-weary idioms we still call blues, still call jazz, still call bebop.
In Holland, his favorite country to play (“I love the way they respond”), McPherson is a hero. In fact, he’s lionized throughout Europe, throughout Japan (“The Japanese love jazz, but they aren’t demonstrative”), and among what he calls “that 2 percent of Americans who actively and actually like jazz and support it.”
Charles first heard the music in Joplin, Missouri, where, like Lester Young and others before him, he was knocked out by the music of itinerant bands, so-called “territory bands,” probably from Kansas City.
“This is 1945,” he told me, “something like that. And, of course, there’d be a big dance. There were sections of the park where black people could go. This is when I first saw instruments en masse, and it’s where I first saw the alto saxophone.”
Charles listened intently to those touring bands. “They would take their breaks and leave their instruments on the chairs. I saw these gold, shiny trumpets and saxophones. And visually, this just knocked me out! I mean, the color and the shape of ’em. I don’t know, maybe it was some primeval instinct. But when I looked at them, it was the shape that mesmerized me — the color, the pearl keys, the whole bit. And then the sound! I was four or five years old. I wanted to play music then.
“I got to Detroit at 9. I didn’t really play until I got in junior high school. I was about 12 before I started playing trumpet. They didn’t have any saxophones; they were all out. Everybody wanted to play saxophone. I joined the band immediately. There were no saxophone players. They were either out (of saxophones], or they were already taken. So anyway, that’s when I started playing flugelhorn for a year. My mother said she was gonna get me (a saxophone]. I got it on my 13th birthday.” Charles McPherson seems so much at home in front of a microphone, with or without sax, that I still can’t help thinking what a fine actor he would’ve made — and still might.
After all, it was Charles McPherson who played Billie Holiday’s saxophonist in the Old Globe Theatre production of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill. And it is pure Charles McPherson you hear pouring out of that alto saxophone Forest Whitaker fingered and mouthed in Bird, the 1988 film Clint Eastwood directed. It was saxophonist Lennie Niehaus, a prominent studio figure on the West Coast jazz scene of the ’50s, who produced the album and supervised its music.
In the same way that Natalie Cole was able to team up with her late father, Nat “King” Cole, to produce Unforgettable, the studio assemblage of five-star bopsters (including McPherson, pianists Barry Harris and Monte Alexander, trumpeter Jon Faddis, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer John Guerin) were able to “sit in” electronically with the late Charlie Parker, pianist Walter Davis, Jr., and other bop greats. The controversial sound and mix of it thrilled, vexed, and astonished many filmgoers with ears, but not me, not the Kid.
While I wasn’t crazy about Bird, I loved the sound McPherson created. It was his unmistakable singing sound I had been following for 40 years, going all the way back to Detroit, high school days. Charles and I grew up there in pre-Motown days, when Detroit was commonly known as Big D. In fact, we were born just 90 days apart — I in coastal Mississippi, Charles in Joplin, Missouri, July 24, 1939.
“No, I mean it,” Charles is telling us on-mike, continuing his intro. I ponder how the spoken intro in jazz, in itself, has become a form of art. “In our time,” he asks, “in this culture — is a ballad still valid?”
Now Charles has me pondering that one, too. At this end of the 20th Century, what does a ballad mean to compact disk and concert ticket buyers reared on the Butthole Surfers, Metallica, Madonna, Salt-n-Pepa, Sir Mix-a-lot, Anthrax, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Ice Cube, the Black Crowes, or Too Short? That goes for any ballad, but especially those old standards that make up so much of jazz and classic pop’s elegant repertoire.
For example, Tony Bennett, whose concerts are now underwritten by Microsoft, is said to have become the darling of post-yuppie concertgoers; they can’t get enough of Tony singing Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Sigmund Romberg, Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhom, Johnny Mercer, Matt Dennis, Jimmy Van Heusen, or Antonio Carlos Jobim. But now Charles McPherson has me rubbing my chin in the half-dark of the Palace Bar, wondering what all this means.
Right within earshot, though, in this sound-jammed, rhythm-wrapped eternal now of a Friday night, Charles is slowly counting off the tempo of “My Funny Valentine” to his band — pianist Greg Kursten, bassist Jeff Littleton, and drummer Chuck McPherson (Charles McPherson Jr.). I slip off into that steamy deep-end, that tingling, deep-night inner glow that jazz balladry induces.
I’d even go so far as to say that the mood this slow ballad has set finely matches what Billie Holiday — already 40 years gone, yet still one of the biggest-selling jazz artists on earth — sensuously and regularly evoked in her person-to-person ways of reliving while delivering whatever she sang. Like Billie, Charles McPherson lessens the distance between the so-called listener and the so-called performer.